This month in my Scientific American column I bemoaned the business model that drives the tech industry: feature incentives. Each year you're enticed to upgrade to a newer software or hardware product—to get the new features. Over time these products become bloated with features, unwieldy and calcified.
Over the years software designers have tried various approaches to solve the feature-bloat problem—often by trying to hide the complexity until you need it. Here's a quick look at these approaches—and how well they've caught on.
Microsoft's collapsing menus
In 2003–2004 Microsoft thought that it would be helpful to hidemenu commands you didn't use. These collapsing menus showed up in, for example, Windows XP and Office 2003.
In practice, of course, they drove people crazy. Your menus were continually changing, adapting to the commands you were using most at the time. As a result, you could never count on finding a certain command where you expected it to be. And when you were lookingfor some command—page-numbering, for example—you could look through the menus forever without finding it, because it might be stashed among the hidden commands.
If you pointed to a collapsed menu and paused with your cursor, it would expand to reveal the full set of options. But the requirement to stop and pause was infuriating, especially if you had to do it on every single menu to find a desired command.
Fate: Abandoned. Collapsing menus wound up making software harder to use instead of easier.
Apple's Advanced mode
In the 2010–2012 era Apple endowed certain programs, such as iMovie and Final Cut Express, with an Advanced mode. When you turned it on (in the program's Preferences dialogue box), an additional set of menu commands, buttons and sliders would appear for your video-editing pleasure.
This time the problem was that nobody knew the Advanced Tools even existed. Few ever suspected their presence; you'd discover their existence only if you happened to open Preferences. Another problem: The definition of “Advanced.” The new tools that appeared were a motley, fairly unrelated set.
Fate: Abandoned. Apple went through the trouble of creating features—Why bury them in a place where nobody will find them?
Photoshop Elements: Sometimes a program becomes so bloated and abstruse, only professionals can invest the time and money to master it. At that point, creators may want to consider marketing a separate, simpler program. For example, Adobe eventually spun off Photoshop, a program that now has more than 500 menu commands, into a much less expensive sibling called Photoshop Elements in 2001. At $100 instead of $600, but with about 80 percent of Photoshop's power, it's been a hit from the beginning.
Fate: This tactic sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. Microsoft Write (a stripped-down version of Microsoft Word) flopped. But Windows has been available in Home and Pro versions for years, and everybody seems happy.
In general, companies have better success with the two-version strategy when the simplerversion comes out first. Make Dropbox popular, and then offer Dropbox Pro.
In many games new features become available (“unlocked”) at higher levels of play. In effect, you're introduced to the new complexity only when you've mastered the basics.
Fate: Hugely successful. Newcomers don't have to learn everything at once but masters have access to more power exactly when they need it.
This approach—unlocking new features based on masteryinstead of dollars—might be worth studying by non-game tech companies, too.